A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Siding and Winter Wrap-up

      Another year of work in Missouri has drawn to a close. Mike and I just packed our car up yesterday, said our goodbyes, and drove into the sunrise on our annual migration east. This is a gross over-simplification of the process of wrapping up however. I have come to finally admit to myself that ever year October and November are going to be extremely busy, full months, this year being no different. A sense of urgency and impending deadline sets in mid October, with the certain knowledge of the drop in temperature to come and much to wrap up.

     This year, our biggest concern was finishing the exterior plaster before temperatures plunged below freezing and both the process of making plaster (involving bare feet for stomp-mixing up batches of sand-clay-straw plaster) and the process of it drying adequately would both become near impossible. We truly have our friend Tyler to thank for the fact that we made that deadline with several weeks of warm weather afterward to spare. Tyler ended up staying and helping us for over a month, and was instrumental to getting our second coat of plastering done. We also had a second plastering work party, which greatly helped us get a good jump start on the process amidst good conversation and company. For the entire day before Mike and our friend Fran mixed batches of plaster until we had quite a reserve built up, while I finished up trim detailing around doors and windows(the trim and assorted detailing actually took us a good week before the second coat could go on). Needless to say, many batches of clay plaster were made and applied onto bales between the first and second coats. In some places, it seems like it is almost four inches thick! 

      This brings me to one of the lessons learned from our strawbale building process this year. Somewhere in the process of stacking up our bale walls, we stopped tracking the levelness of the walls with quite the same fastidiousness that we had started with. Despite reading warnings in natural building books about this tendency, we just got off, with several corners and spots along the wall flaring out quite a bit. I think we just got so frustrated with the tedious process of notching bales around our timberframe that we started saying “good enough” and assuming we could whack the bales into levelness later. Problem was that our bale pinning system (staking and screwing wooden stakes to framing) worked really, really well. We were throwing ourselves with force against the wall and it just would not budge. We tried chain-saw trimming parts and reshaping protrusions, and still, the big bulges would not go away. We built out plaster in low spots, and put in on thin in high spots, but the waviness persisted. So ultimately, we just made our peace with an undulating wall that does not hide the fact that it is composed of bales and not your average stud frame construction. Oh well!

     The next big hurdle in the building process was getting doors in and siding up to further protect the walls. We decided on half-wall siding to protect the lower part of the walls that would be receiving the most weather—splash back rain and snow drifts, etc. The earthen plaster does a great job of letting the strawbales “breath” so that moisture doesn’t buildup excessively to the point where mold can flourish (this has been a problem in many cement-stuccoed SB buildings simply because cement does not breath well. The same is true with many well-intentioned world heritage site restoration projects of old adobe and cob buildings which have nearly disintegrated under a protective coating of cement stucco! The restorations have all had to be redone using earthen stucco!) The only downside to clay-based plaster is that it isn’t permanent, it has to be reapplied periodically as it weathers. 

Ben Law's Woodland House in England
      As for siding, we decided for siding to go with something readily available locally, which is white oak cut by our Amish friend Ivan who has a mill five miles away. We love the look of the live-edge siding on Ben Law’s house (the English roundwood timberframer who inspired the frame of our house as well). So we asked Ivan to keep one edge of our siding unmilled, just the raw bark or the logs. What resulted is kind of an organic unpredictable edge that one visitor hilariously named “the smurf house look”! My parents came down to help us again and together we cut and hung the lower boards. This is an understatement as this took us all about a week of hustle and bustle in the last of the warmish fall weather and the first of the can't-feel-fingers winter weather that blasted in. A huge thank you to them for helping us to the finish line! Mike mostly did the trickier high gable ends with help from Brian and I, again no small feat. Note the purple flashing sticking out from the bottom, which will be where we tie in a porch roof next year.


     Another tedious step for us this past month was closing in the underside of the soffiting, connecting the roof to the walls. We need our roof to be vented, to let in cool air flow from the bottom of the roof to the vent built into the ridge cap, so that ice dams don't happen (the idea is to keep the roof surface cool, to counteract heat escaping the roof from melting snow and creating ice that forces its way under the roof and into the walls causing water damage). This seems excessively detailed, I know, but it is a big issue for a lot of houses so most builders vent roofs in cold climates now if they don't have cold attic space to serve the same function. For this venting/closing in we went into mouse-paranoia mode, constantly scanning for where mice could infiltrate, as they surely will. We used plywood (stained darker with linseed oil and natural pigments) and a prefabricated metal flashing piece with little perforations to let air in. Oh the detailing! Every little crack and seam now filled in, we get to cross a seriously inglorious "to do" off of our list. It is satisfying to think that our exterior is pretty much done and no more high ladder work will be necessary next year.

     One of the more satisfying things we did in our last week was to clean out the straw mountain that had formed over the course of baling. I have been itching to do this for some time, but finally! My parents helped, loading up huge tarps full of straw and dragging them over to our soon-to-be garden site for mulch next year (yes, you read it correctly! We are taking the garden plunge next year! Woo hoo!) 

     On our second to last day, our neighbor Jake came down with three horses and his plow and we took a look at the soil together, deciding it was not too frosty to be plowed up for next year's garden site. The frost will help break up the compacted ribbons of sod that were smoothly flipped over as Jake passed back and forth with the animals. The nice thing about horses is that their small hoof size does not compact the soil as they work, unlike tractors that can create a compacted subsoil horizon, just below what is plowed. Next spring we will add compost and manure and straw and form raised beds. It is a huge sized plot (Jake really went for it), and we figure we will plant cover crops on a good bit of it to help feed the soil until we are ready to use it all. I am just so excited about it though, nothing like a waiting garden bed to plant the seed of upcoming spring in one's mind.

      Getting doors in has been a challenge as well, complete with its own learning curve. We bought nice second hand doors for probably a quarter of the price of new ones. Trouble was, they didn't come with frames and I optimistically decided to build some to fit. Doors are one of the trickiest things to get to fit well. If hung off-level, you will have a door that constantly swings out or in. If fit too snugly in its frame, swelling wood with seasonal humidity can make it not shut properly. And so on. Suffice to say, there are adjustments that need to be made to both doors in the spring (one too snug, one too gappy), but the are both shut for now. We hunted and hunted for a front door that would do justice to the character of the house and would still be in our miserly price range, but we just didn't find it this year. We opted for the very affordable "plywood and screws" door option instead, for now.


      As you can see in the above interior shots, we have quite a bit of plastering yet to go on the inside, another layer of finish flooring upstairs and down, rafter and floor cavities to stuff with cellulose insulation and a stack of ceiling boards to tack up. There are partition walls between upstairs bedrooms and downstairs bathroom to put on as well. Plumbing, a set of stairs and a stove instalation, oh, and a wrap around porch with several roofs, an attached pantry and sunroom yet to attach... BUT it feels like we are so close to being finished! (I can hear you laughing.) I suppose it is all relative, we have come such a long, marathonish way that the last five miles seem like nothing. But honestly, I am glad for a break from it all for a few months. And it has come right in time for the icicles to start forming and NW winds to start blasting. Goodbye house, may you withstand the winter onslaught! 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fall Closing In

      The beginning of fall has arrived in all of its forms--a chilly nip in the night air, leaves are tinged with brown, asters are suddenly the only wildflowers left blooming, Canada geese are honking overhead making their reverse migration, days are cut short by early and earlier dusks. Hmm. It is clearly time for us to pick up the pace on closing in the house before we too have to make our own winter migration...

      I wrote a little in the last post about feeling like we are passing through a dark, overwhelming chapter in our lives here, and in many ways that has not changed--the high-voltage line is still looming on the horizon and keeping me up at night, members of our community are still undecided about whether to stay here in Missouri or part ways, all that remains to be done on our house still feels overwhelming, and it keeps goshdarn raining, but.... there are also some small glimmers of light that have come our way. One is Tyler. We met him last winter and communicated some about his visiting here, so really it is not a huge surprise that he did indeed come. But somehow his arrival feels more like a visitation by a natural building angel, sent in response to desperate prayers for help... not only is he experienced, skilled and enthusiastic to help us with our house, but he also somehow fits seamlessly into our rather unusual life, bringing good conversation, laughter, and the cross-pollination of new ideas to brighten our days. I have to stop myself sometimes from begging him never to leave, which of course someday he will, but for the time being, we are blessed and so grateful for his help and presence.

Our friend Matt was swallowed by our giant straw pile at a work party! 

     Another bright spot has been help from our community in the form of a work party or two... organized somewhat frantically in the days before, we sent out calls, not really expecting anyone to be able to make it on short notice, but again, miraculously in one morning a crew had arrived and we had almost a whole wall plastered and our soggy strawbale wall disassembled. And what is even more miraculous, Mike was able to reassemble it all and finish baling completely in one more day. So we are determinedly moving forward: framing out the gable ends with the help of neighbor Brian, ploughing forward with the long process of plastering, slowly closing in all the openings left exposed. We even had a small dinner party inside on a cold evening, complete with tablecloth and candlelight. So even though it often feels like we are giant snails inching along with things, I can see we have made huge progress. A friend’s mother pointed this out to me as she had not seen it since the spring, with barely a floor on. What a difference walls make! It is almost a complete shell.

East and north sides of the house
South side with scaffolding set up for plastering
West side view, the search for a front door is on!

After a big 9 in. rain storm, our lower field was flooded and seaworthy! 

      On top of all of the house work, we have also been participating in strange harvests of various kinds. This weekend was the big sorghum harvest that our friends the Crawfords and their large extended local clan participate in every year, using the same press that many generations of their family have used in time past. We have adopted ourselves into the tradition, joining in the festive day. I just taught my first class on making and using natural dyes from native plants. I harvested flowers, berries or leaves from local pokeberry, tickseed coreopsis, wild sunflowers, walnut hulls, comfrey, and goldenrod and simmered and strained them into pots of beautiful dye color. The class was great, full of friends and new dyeing enthusiasts with white wool, silk, and cotton to experiment with. We had six rocket stoves going, fueled by sticks, and hours later, mounds of gorgeous colors being pulled from steaming pots. Beauty. (Many thanks to Teri Page for photographing the event, check out her blog- homestead-honey.com for more details about dying). Mike’s latest harvest has been the nuts of wild (and somewhat invasive) lotus plants from a nearby lake. The nuts pop out of the unusual flower heads and taste somewhat like a cross of potatoes and corn, when salted and fried and shelled. Mushrooms have been plentiful as well, and Mike’s latest food experiments have centered around creating delicious mushroom jerky. But mostly while friends and neighbors bring in their garden harvests and can-freeze-dehydrate the days away, we bide our time for the day when we too will be able to focus on food and not building. Hard to believe it will ever come! But with one month to go, our time is fully dedicated to closing in the house: with one more coat of plaster, oak siding on gable ends and the bottom few feet, and a few doors still to install, we will be hard at work.

Mike manning the fires for the class

Dye pots bubbling on top of rocket stoves

Sunflowers, Pokeberries, Tickseed Coreopsis, and Goldenrods working their magic

Wringing out the finished garments

Beautiful color! 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The sweet and the stormy

      This blog post is well overdue, and for that I apologize! The truth is that this past month or so has been somewhat overwhelming in both good and bad ways. Let me start with the good. We have a floor in our house now. And the floor has been enabling wonderful things. For one, I turned 32 in June and we hosted our first party in our house to celebrate! It feels exciting to finally have a big space to host gatherings in, the floor having turned our cumbersome large frame into an open-air pavilion of sorts. It has been suggested by several friends that we should just keep it this way... with 360 views, the sunset in the background lighting up tree canopy on the opposite side, the birdsong and breeze all providing the backdrop for our gatherings. Well, it does feel kind of perfect on evenings such as these! But come November, I have a feeling we will be glad for some insulated walls, even if they do compromise the views. 

     The floor itself was a score--old barn wood that a nice local man gave us a good deal on. The patchwork nature of old paint, weathering, and different plank sizes once puzzled together makes for a collage of sorts underfoot, and I find myself thinking that my grandfather (himself a collage artist and sculptor) would appreciate the aesthetics of it. Eventually, it will get covered over with finish flooring, but for now I have been admiring it and ruminating on creating a house is not that far off from creating a huge artwork of sorts, a giant sculpture. Our friend's children seem to get it, and have been inspired to create their own masterpiece houses when they come over to gatherings. It is nice to lose track of what they are doing for an hour and then look up to see several three year olds working together to lug a heavy log over to their play house. Built-in mailboxes, chicken coops, gardens, windows, and a giant catapult have all manifested in their joint creations. It is fun to witness how cooperative, imaginative, and creative these kids are when given some friends, a patch of dirt and some scraps. Not unlike their parents!

      What else? On the 4th of July we celebrated another Inter-dependence Day at our friends John and Holly's farm. Holly is a talented acupuncturist who recently treated a client she knew couldn't afford services. He runs a fireworks tent and offered to compensate her in fireworks, and being the generous gift-economist that she is, she agreed and we all got to participate up close in one heck of a show in addition to the usual delicious feast! Mike's parents were in attendance, as they came for a "workation" to help us out for a long weekend. They were hugely helpful in framing out east and west porch floors (necessary to start baling) and insulating with cellulose under where the strawbales will sit. Mike's father Sam, himself a doctor in his usual work sphere, likes to jokingly grumble about feeling like he has been "restructured" into a lowly menial-work position in some communist regime. Hopefully some day they will be able to come and actually kick their heels up when they visit, reminiscing about which board and joint they were responsible for back in the old construction days...

     And mostly the weather has been beautiful, the butterflies and wildflowers have been abundant, and we actually have one patch of accidental garden growing along! I had almost given up in the poor soil in this one little bed as it stunted everything I planted in it last year. I mixed in some compost and all of a sudden we had volunteer squash and tomatoes (thank you half-finished compost!) Something of a three-sisters bed with the addition of lettace seeds that I sowed this year, the squash leaves have been shading the lettace to extend its season by almost a month, and the tomatoes pop up above the broad squash leaves. We have barely had to weed, and now our mystery squash are revealing themselves to be... spaghetti squash! It has been an unexpected treat to watch it all unfold, and hopefully to eat as long as the rabbits don't discover it first.

     The last treat of the season has been a new birth in the neighborhood. John and Regina's healthy new baby girl Johanna arrived right on schedule, and thanks to our local midwife Alyssa and her team, it happened "naturally" right down Frontier Ln. at their home! In fact, Regina gave birth in a tent that she set up for the purpose. I have to admire them for their courage in having a baby their first season on their land, still a bit half-homed at the moment. While they hoped to have a small cabin finished, it just hasn't happened (construction projects tends to run notoriously late in case you hadn't noticed!) Still, they have big support in our community who have all been pitching in to cook meals and wash diapers and such. And I know they will figure out something for winter, perhaps renting in town. I have been trying to imagine what it would be like to have a small infant along for the journey with us in our given circumstances, and it just seems like it would be overwhelming if not impossible. Yet women worldwide manage it somehow, even in the midst of war and displacement and natural disaster! And Regina is one of the strongest and most determined mothers I have witnessed, biking to her midwife appointments (at 8 months pregnant, 15 miles away!), working on their house up until the last weeks. With such a beautiful little being in your midst, it is hard not to have faith that all is possible. I trust their family will prevail, and the amazing weather this past week feels like a small blessing on them while they recuperate and settle in.

     Okay, that leads me to the bad-overwhelming of late. Mike left with his parents a few weeks ago for a family reunion, and almost as soon as he left, disaster struck with me alone. A huge storm blew in with strong winds and almost hurricane like conditions. I am fortunate to have amazing neighbors Brian and Teri who were tracking the progress and came down to get me right before the worst hit. It was eerily calm and I had fallen asleep waiting for something to happen. I figured that this, like most storms, wouldn't really do much damage to our campsite and we would weather-through okay. Thankfully, Teri woke me up and we drove up to their house where I stayed overnight because the next morning when I came down to check on things, I found that our tallest tree, a massive 70 ft. red oak, had cracked at the base and fallen just feet away from our tent structure. In fact, it landed right where my car had been parked the night before. It took out two smaller trees with it and the whole mass of trunks and branches somehow miraculously had fallen in the negative space between our structures! This has been my worst fear camping out for years, and I have crouched in terror listening to thunder getting closer and closer in past storms. As overwhelming as it has been to start cleaning up the mess, I just feel so lucky to have not been there! It turns out that the base of the tree was quite rotted in the interior and it was a bit of a ticking time bomb. I'm grateful it chose to wait until we weren't there, and to fall in the least-damageful way possible (as if it did indeed "choose" any of that!)

      I have also been feeling somewhat daunted by the next hurdle in our building process-- and that is that we have no straw bales. It is straw season, and yet all the local farmers I have talked to have had miserable wheat crops, not even worth harvesting, thanks to hale/storm damage. Too much rain has meant straw hasn't dried properly either, so we are having to widen our search considerably. Plus less and less farmers are square baling, opting for big round bales instead. Our kind neighbors (who have saved our skins more than once) Don and Dana have been racking their brains and making all the calls they can to farmers they know, and I just placed an ad in our local "trader" newspaper... "desperately seeking straw!" Or something like that. We will see if we get any nibbles back. We may just have to bite the bullet and pay extra to have it trucked in from afar. Or to have someone's last years straw re-baled into squares. I guess sometimes you luck into the good deal, and sometimes you have to pay the piper for forces out of your control... Funny the reversal of weather prayers issuing from our mouths-- in past years, it was for rain to break the drought, and this year, it is for the storms to stop and a nice long drought month to help us get some rain-sensitive baling work done on the house! The next blog post will tell. In the meantime, I have been notching in our second floor beams, stalling for bales, and for Mike to return. The time to start making progress on the house is here... framing in our doors and windows, nailing in our toe-ups, ordering materials for plastering and flashing and a dozen more things it seems. Wish us luck and some dry weather!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Nature, red in tooth and claw

      Late spring in Missouri, I am learning to expect the full onslaught of natural forces. From tick population explosions, to voracious weed growth, to wild storms resulting in flooded roads and fields and mud everywhere, our world here spins uncomfortably out of control for a few weeks. Okay, maybe a month. I suppose we are not the only beings entering into the season with full energy to get growing and moving, but it does feel uncomfortable at times to be living outdoors in it all.

      Last week brought 6 inches of rain in two storms, one of which had our neighbors hitting their storm shelters and whatever glass-shatter-free safe zones they had indoors. It brought 90 mph winds, quarter-sized hale, and a heat lightning storm (lightning flashing every second, making for a strange strobe-like effect) that lasted four hours as I was counting before I fell asleep. We have been opting to weather out the fierce storms in our tent, mostly in order to help hold up the thin fabric walls from ripping apart in the high winds and to protect our campsite. I could feel hale driving sideways, hitting my hands in sharp pricks from the other side of the tent wall as I braced it. But fortunately the little thing held through the worst of it, as did our house frame, and we made it through with only a broken mug to show the damage in our outdoor kitchen of the harrowing experience. Though the next morning we woke to find our wood-chipped driveway full of little rivulets of runoff water, making their way down to our creek, having pushed all of our carefully arranged chips into a mass at the bottom of the hill. Argh. Still, as people in the area had much more serious damage to trees and roofs, I can't complain. An unexpected silver lining to all the rain has been that suddenly all of our dormant shitake-innoculated logs flushed and exploded in mushrooms! So we have been feasting lately. Plus the mulberries have popped in the first of the season's fruits, so delicious, very worth the purple-stained hands and mouth.

     As uncomfortable as it feels at times to be living in a soggy, tick-bitten, unpredictable world with little refuge in the way of shelter, it is also equally marvelous to be up close to it. To watch a giant blue-grey mass of storm clouds piling up and coming closer and closer, to wade down though the flooded field and watch the creek beds spilling over, to walk across a field and almost step on a giant black rat snake before its muscular scaly body writhes away, to witness the totally bizarre flight of a hummingbird's mating dance, or have a butterfly land on your arm.... all totally stop me in my tracks and thoughts with wonder. One of the most amazing natural events I have witnessed happened a few weeks ago when Mike and I were visiting our neighbors the Crawfords. We were out in the garden with them and their daughter Melanie chatting and doing little garden tasks on a beautiful breezy blue-skied afternoon when out of nowhere a frenzy of winds touched down in the pea bed and whipped up a big mass of straw mulch. This kind of thing may happen all the time without our seeing it, but the fact that the straw had been drawn violently up into the tumbling whirlwind made the normally invisible visible to us dumb-founded witnesses. We all had stopped mid-sentence, mid-task, and just stood riveted as the straw tumbled round and round, higher and higher into the air. We watched until we couldn't see it anymore, it had been lifted so high into the clear blue, some of it dropping delicately down to land on the tree tops in the distance. How did that come to be on such a mild calm afternoon? And so perfectly staged in front of us, the chance audience? I feel like a new pupil in the ways of the wild world, and I am learning to soak up the mystery of it all as it comes without definitions or easy answers, which my mind craves regardless.

     Okay, enough of the poetic! The brass tacks of what we have been up to lately with out little slice of  wilderness is that we have been putting in the floor on our house! After weeks of scouting out materials from local mills, people's barns, restores, and the like, we have spent the last week with my work-ationing parents (and guest star Aunt Jane) hanging joists and tacking on plywood underneath them to create what will be our insulated first floor. It is at its lowest point one foot off the ground (making for a tight squeeze, on our backs to get plywood hung), and on its highest point around three feet off the ground. Thanks to the help of my family, we were able to get the whole thing up in a week, and what a difference a floor makes in defining the "housiness" of a structure! No longer can we be mistaken for Missouri's largest and weirdest deer stand! The only problem with defining our first insulated cavity is that I have become a bit paranoid about mouse entry-points. No crack or hole seems too small, and we have taken some extra precautions to patch and reinforce weak spots. We also dug in our greywater pipes and exit-points from the house, burying the line away from the house a little ways to a spot where we can put in a greywater garden and fruit trees, (one day, with all the left-over energy we will have at the end of all this!) So now that we have drain pipes and floor in, we are beginning to think "walls," and with straw-baling season a few weeks away, we are right on schedule.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Digging In

        We have arrived back to Missouri for the spring, this year greeted at the end of a long drive by a wonderful sight: our house frame and roof still standing, cheering us home again! It feels good to be back with one heck of a season's tough work behind us, and one exciting season of work before us. Now that we have been here for about three weeks or so, I can say that our activities for this first month seem to be organized around a central theme--and that is digging. Digging drainage ditches, digging in little tree saplings, shoveling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of top soil and woodchips to add to our swales, turning up the soil in our one small garden bed, etc. Spring seems like a time for robust digging in, literally and metaphorically, into new projects. Not that I am complaining, because despite somewhat sore backs and tired bodies, it is all work that we are excited to be doing: each shovelful seems to bring our dreams that much closer to becoming realities.

Our little home away from home...

     I also can't complain about the moving-in process. Setting up camp this year has also been relatively painless and quick compared with our process last year (which involved building a covered living structure, setting up roof-catchment water systems, building storage systems in our shed, and getting our mulched outdoor-living areas established to name a few projects!) We were mostly unpacked and set up in one day, with some basic reorganization, planting pots and beds, and re-mulching in the following week. Our neighbors were also generous to feed us our first few days of meals while we got our kitchen set up for outdoor cooking again. In fact, the first weekend we arrived was fairly full of celebrations, potlucks, clothes-swaps and gatherings of various kinds. We arrived in time for this year's May Day celebration which involved erecting a May poll, music, dancing, weaving ribbons around and a big delicious feast. And despite having missed the first days of leaves budding out on trees, which is always kind of miraculous to witness, we also missed the last blasts of cold April weather and have for the most part been enjoying sparkling warm spring days.

May Day, with last year's may poll ready to become this year's campfire

     Although we are eager to start putting in the first floor of our house, what lies beneath comes first and tackling all the drainage issues has required a solid week or more of digging. Putting in perforated black drainage pipe and gravel around the perimeter of the house, and building little retaining walls out of "urbanite" (chunks of broken-up old concrete) around the banked earth of our north and east sides has been quite a bit of a work, shovelful by shovelful. We have also started thinking about how water is going to move in and out of the house, and we have dug in a ditch under the house for "greywater" (which is waste water from kitchen and bathroom minus "blackwater" from a flush toilet) to drain away and out to a greywater garden planted to absorb it close by. As we have muddled through these steps, I am once again struck by how much work and expense a basic house is to construct! Still, the creative process of it all is rewarding and in the end, I am sure we will value it all the more for all the work that has gone in.

     The spring rains this year have been much more paltry than last, and so our pond has not filled to full capacity. We thought we would be spending more time this spring planting out native wetland plants and starting to introduce fish into it, but instead we have opted to focus on planting out our hugel-swale system. You may remember this swale system from posts from our first year if you have been following the blog, but if not, they are basically ditches dug on contour on a south-facing slope on our land, about fifteen feet apart, and we added some rotting logs into the downhill mounds under the dirt relocated from digging. Last year they were looking a bit weedy, but we didn't have much time to pay them attention. This year they have been lavished with weeding, compost and topsoil, seeded with a mix of clovers to pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, and they are getting their first plantings! We ordered eight cultivated pear and apple trees to start, and added in twenty-five nitrogen-fixing shrubs, called false blooming indigo, available from the conservation department. We also are planning to add in some more nitrogen fixers (to be discussed in the next post)and what, in the permaculture world, are called "dynamic accumulators," which all have long tap roots to draw up deeper levels of nutrients and make it available at the surface level. These are things like comfrey, burdock, horseradish, and jerusalem artichoke. Finally spending time to get these planting "guilds" established has been very exciting, and so work that it has taken has flown by fairly easily.

     Among our native "neighbors" that are becoming more and more familiar to us--treefrogs, inchworms, monarchs and swallowtails, hawks and vultures, songbirds, mice (not such a welcome one), snakes, herons, migrating geese, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and many more--we have some new human neighbors down the road. After considering it for a year, John and a very pregnant Regina moved on to thirty acres down the road to start, or perhaps relocate, a Catholic Worker farm. They have been running The White Rose CW for years in Chicago, juggling both some farming and lots of hospitality and activism, but lacking a real space for it all. Here, they hope to have room for several more singles, couples, or families to join them in running a farm and providing hospitality for folks who need a temporary space (and all of this non-electrically!) I think they are up for the challenge, as they have already tackled quite a bit and seem pretty resilient to the challenges of our off-the-grid lifestyle and location. They purchased a pre-built cabin in need of some repair and have been focusing on fixing it up and getting it livable for the baby soon-to-come, with lots of help of volunteers and community work parties. We are very excited to have them joining the community and hope to partner with them in their vision in future years. Once again, our wonderful neighbor Don Miller helped move a cabin into place with his tractor, making it his fifth house moved/raised in our community in as many years! Thank goodness for the help of community!

      Well, spring edibles beckon me in the forest--morels, wood nettles, and the black locusts are blooming (we have been making delicious sweet fritters with the edible blossoms) so I had better leave off here... A delicious spring to you all!